Burglary (entering a building with the intent to commit a crime inside) and larceny (theft) are two different crimes, although burglaries are often committed for the purpose of theft. Burglary laws are intended to protect the sanctity and privacy of people’s homes and other structures. Laws against larceny protect personal property. For more information on the distinction between burglary and theft, see Differences Between Theft, Burglary and Robbery,Juvenile Theft and Burglary Laws, and Can I be convicted and punished for both burglary and the theft of goods taken during the burglary?
A person commits burglary by entering into a building without permission with the intent to commit a crime inside. The intended crime is most often theft, but it may be some other crime, such as sexual assault or arson. For example, a person who goes into a restaurant in order to rob the patrons has committed burglary. Some burglaries, such as armed burglaries and burglaries of people’s homes (also called home invasion burglaries) are often punished more severely than other burglaries.
- Building. Historically, the crime of burglary could only be committed by entering a person's home. Today, burglary laws are much broader. You can commit burglary if you unlawfully enter into any building, such as an office, barn, warehouse, or school, with the intent to commit a crime. In some states, burglary can also be committed by entering a vehicle, such as a truck or boat, with the intent to commit a crime.
- Entering. Traditionally, in order to commit burglary, the defendant had to “break and enter” into the building. Breaking and entering means using even the smallest amount of force to enter a building or room. For example, you can commit a burglary even if the only force you use to enter a building is pushing open a door. In most states, any entry, even one that uses absolutely no force, such as walking through an open door, is enough to constitute burglary. People can be convicted of burglary even if they do not completely enter into the building or vehicle. For example, lifting up a window and reaching your arm through the window frame in order to take something from inside constitutes entering for the purpose of a burglary conviction.
- Intent to commit a crime. In order to convict a person of burglary, the prosecution must prove that the defendant entered the building with the intent to commit a crime inside. Oftentimes the circumstances of the entry are such that a jury or judge can reach this conclusion. For example, if a person forces his way into a closed office in the middle of the night and steals money from the safe, a jury or judge would probably have no trouble concluding he entered the office with the purpose of committing a crime. The actual intended crime does not even need to occur in order for a person to be convicted of burglary. It is enough to make such an entry with the intent to commit a crime. For example, if a would-be burglar enters a house to commit an assault but is thwarted by the alarm system, the person could still be convicted of burglary.
- Punishment. Burglary is usually a felony, punishable by time in state prison. Prison sentences for burglary vary based on the circumstances of the offense.
For more information on the crime of burglary, see Burglary: Penalties and Sentencing and Home Invasions.
To commit the crime of larceny, also known as theft, petty theft, or grand theft, a person must take someone else’s property without permission and with the intention to permanently deprive the owner of its use or possession. A theft may occur during the course of a burglary, but it can also occur as a separate incident. For example, shoplifting is theft, as is taking milk money from a schoolmate's backpack.
- Property. Theft involves the taking of personal, tangible property. You cannot be convicted of theft if, for example, you try to take someone else’s land, even though other criminal charges might apply. Theft usually involves money or physical objects that can be moved and sold, like jewelry, credit cards, firearms, and electronics.
- Permission. Taking an object with the owner’s permission is not theft, unless you use deceit or trickery to try to convince the owner to allow you to have control over the item. For example, if you use a friend's car with permission, no crime has been committed. However, it is theft if you ask to “borrow” a car and intend to never a return it.
- Permanently deprive. To commit a theft you must take property with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of it. However, it is not necessary to intend to permanently deprive the owner of the property at the time you take it. For example, suppose a woman borrows her sister’s sweater without permission, intending to return it. She thinks the sweater looks better on her, and she decides to keep it. She has committed theft, because she is permanently depriving her sister of the sweater, even though that was not original intent. Of course, if the sister agrees and gives her the sweater, then there has been no theft.
- Punishment. Theft may be a misdemeanor (punishable by up to one year in county or local jail) or a felony (punishable by time in state prison). Penalties vary based on the circumstances of the offense and, often, the value of the items taken. Restitution (repayment) to victims is often ordered in theft cases.
For more information on the crime of theft, see Petty Theft & Other Laws.
Obtaining Legal Assistance
You should always talk to a local criminal defense lawyer if you are accused of or charged with a crime or have questions about the law or the criminal justice process. Even if you believe you have done nothing wrong, speaking to police without first consulting an attorney can seriously damage your case. An attorney can help you understand the laws in your state and present the strongest possible defense.